Guest post by Jeroen Janssen: Cases in which higher prior knowledge leads to higher intrinsic cognitive load

My colleague Jeroen Janssen wrote this post in Dutch, but I think it’s also worth sharing here:

The complexity of a task and the learner’s prior knowledge are crucial factors in educational design. Endres et al. conducted a study exploring the connection between these two variables. According to cognitive load theory, more prior knowledge should reduce the complexity of a task because the learner can better divide the task into smaller parts. However, the study found that there are situations in which greater prior knowledge increases task complexity. This can occur, for example, when dealing with complex systems (such as ecological systems), where beginners may underestimate the complexity and thus experience less cognitive load than experts. These findings suggest that educators must consider that prior knowledge may not always result in lower task complexity and should strive to adjust the complexity to match their students’ prior knowledge.

Abstract of the study:

Background & Aims

Cognitive load theory assumes that the higher the learner’s prior knowledge (i.e., the more expert the learner), the lower the intrinsic cognitive load (complexity) experienced for a given problem. While this is the case in many scenarios, there can be cases in which the converse is also true, resulting in more expert learners reporting higher intrinsic cognitive load than novices for the same problem. This can occur in relation to problems involving complex systems (e.g., ecological systems), for which novices’ problem representations may underestimate problem complexity and therefore report lower intrinsic load than experts. This finding is borne out in the current paper.

Samples, Methods & Results

In Study 1 with 118 participants from the Black Forest area in Germany, participants with higher levels of forestry and ecological expertise evaluated a problem relating to the restructuring of the Black Forest to adapt to climate change as more complex than did novices. In Study 2 (within-subjects design, n = 66 primary-school students), we conceptually replicated this finding in a domain more typical of cognitive load theory studies, mathematics. We found that higher prior knowledge also reduced the underestimation of the complexity of ‘tricky’, but frequently used, mathematics word problems.


Our findings suggest that cognitive load theory’s assumptions about intrinsic load and prior knowledge should be refined, as there seems to exist a sub-set of problem-solving tasks for which the traditional relationship between prior knowledge and reported ICL is reversed.

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